Chipotle Mexican Grill: A World of Pure Imagination or Pure Manipulation

The following is a paper written by a FIMS alum (2014), Christina Giuffre, for her Globalization seminar.

Abstract: The fast-food chain – Chipotle Mexican Grill – sparked controversy with their recent advertisement, The Scarecrow, by challenging the norms around mass-scale agricultural production. I will demonstrate how Chipotle’s position within the prepared food marketplace is challenging current subjectivities of the fast-food industry. I will show that Chipotle has created a unique space in the prepared food marketplace, one that could be described as hybrid, alternative or middle ground in comparison to the McDonaldized system. I will also provide a critique on whether Chipotle’s production practices are truly what they represent in their advertisement – The Scarecrow. Lastly, I will give a brief description of Chipotle’s food production practices for mass-scale consumption.

Changes in the stages of food production and distribution have led to standardization, mass production and intense capitalization of agriculture. In a globalized capitalist economy, the prepared food marketplace continues to support the proliferation of industrial farming and marginalization of urban farming (Weber, p.17). The fast-food chain – Chipotle Mexican Grill – sparked controversy with their recent advertisement, The Scarecrow, by challenging the norms around mass-scale agricultural production. The ad raised a number of questions:

  • Where does Chipotle position itself in the prepared food marketplace?
  • How is Chipotle trying to differentiate itself from the norms of food production and consumption?
  • Does Chipotle fall under the categorization of bigness in the fast-food industry or is the company trying to incorporate smallness within society’s globalized capitalist enterprises?
  • What does this say about the subjectivities Chipotle has created for consumers, producers and workers?

I will advocate Chipotle incorporates ‘smallness’ into a system of ‘big’ capitalist enterprises. I will use Anna Tsing’s concepts of big and small as a framework to structure my argument for Chipotle’s hybrid nature within the fast food production system. Integrating big and small production means, Chipotle creates a unique model within the larger capitalist system. I will demonstrate how Chipotle’s position within the prepared food marketplace is challenging current subjectivities of the fast-food industry. I will show that Chipotle has created a unique space in the prepared food marketplace, one that could be described as hybrid, alternative or middle ground in comparison to the McDonaldized system. McDonaldization is a term used in George Ritzer’s book, pertaining to the rationalization of modes of thought, and how a culture adopts the characteristics of a fast-food restaurant (Ritzer, p. 8). I will also provide a critique on whether Chipotle’s production practices are truly what they allude to in their advertisement – The Scarecrow. First, I will give a brief description of Chipotle’s food production practices for mass-scale consumption. I will then examine the complex public opinion surrounding Chipotle and how that represents its position as an alternative or hybrid producer of fast-food. I will explore how Chipotle has altered subjectivities for consumers, producers and workers within the fast-food industry to support its unique position in the fast-food marketplace. Lastly, I will provide a critique, offering different viewpoints on whether Chipotle’s production practices embody what they exemplify through their advertisements.

Chipotle Mexican Grill is a publicly owned enterprise founded by Steve Ells in 1993. The company has since become the largest Mexican-style fast-food chain in North America. In 1999 Ells became enamored with the idea of sustainable food production and decided to develop a brand based on ‘Food with Integrity.’ Chipotle outlines their Food with Integrity program:

Serving the very best sustainably raised food possible with an eye to great taste, great nutrition and great value. It means that we support and sustain family farmers who respect the land and the animals in their care. It means that whenever possible we use meat from animals raised without the use of antibiotics or added hormones. And it means that we source organic and local produce when practical (Chipotle Mexican Grill).

Chipotle produces food for mass-scale consumption in a manner that “prides itself on using premium ingredients, such as naturally raised pork and chicken, fresh produce and organic beans” (Peters, p. 68 and 70). As Chipotle continues to increase their supply of high-quality meats, it results in an increase in prices. For example, the price of their carnitas burrito increased to $6.25 due to a switch to higher-priced pork, which is more expensive than most fast-food restaurants (Peters, p. 68). The escalated prices reflect how production processes include higher quality sourced food and also differentiates the company from other fast-food companies such as McDonalds, who sell their cheeseburgers for under $1.30. Ells believes that creating a more sustainable food chain is not only the right thing to do, but also that natural ingredients taste better. Customers seem to agree, as the sales of the Carnitas Burrito doubled (Raggas and Roberts, p. 266).

As Chipotle continues to grow, they put great effort into maintaining a particular image within the prepared food marketplace to differentiate themselves from other mass-market food producers. Ells’ shows devotion to sourcing the “finest sustainable ingredients” and Chipotle continues to focus on sustainable production practices as its business expands. Sack’s article supports Chipotle’s focus on sustainability by stating:

Now opening a new restaurant almost every other day, Chipotle’s sustainable food approach may have an industry-wide effect. Instead of looking for suppliers that can reverse-engineer a chicken patty that costs 89 cents, Chipotle is undertaking ambitious projects such as working with farmers to breed almost-lost heritage chickens that can roam on pastures instead of being confined to crates (p.126).

Currently, Chipotle is the largest purchaser of natural meats in the world and supports over 600 family farms (Ragas and Roberts, p.266). Although Chipotle has admitted they are not 100 percent fully sustainable, the company has certainly created a powerful image towards change within the prepared food marketplace and continues to make improvements. Ells explains it is a matter of supply that deters them from being 100% sustainable and although it is not cheap to source naturally raised meat, it is important to continue to engage in sustainable practices and to brand themselves appropriately (Peters, p. 68). Ells believes that customers have embraced the brand because “they have finally found a fast-food restaurant that has respect – for them, for their taste buds, for their sense of aesthetics, for service, for its employees and for its suppliers” (Raggas and Roberts, p.266). The majority of fast-food companies today participate in an industry that does not support a healthy lifestyle and does not value where their food is sourced. Ritzer elaborates on this notion stating:

The fast-food restaurant also dehumanizes the consumer. By eating on a sort of assembly line, the diner is reduced to an automaton made to rush through a meal with little gratification (p. 36).

Chipotle differs from the current fast-food industry as they have situated themselves within the fast-food industry to promote and employ practices of sustainable production for mass-scale consumption.

An example of the way Chipotle represents itself is demonstrated in their Scarecrow advertisement. The Scarecrow tells a story about Chipotle’s position against industrialized agricultural production norms. The character of a scarecrow – both a functional and symbolic protector of the traditional farm – is used to demonstrate the value Chipotle places on sustainable agriculture. The scarecrow is placed into a world of industrial agriculture production processes that are controlled by robotic crows. Fiona Apple’s oppressively solemn and menacing cover of the song “Pure Imagination,” images of deprived animals, mechanization and fraudulent production and consumption processes deliver a haunting image of the inhumane and unethical agricultural production processes. The ad delivers a powerful warning about the dangers of mass agricultural production. The ad provokes an emotional response in people and its intention is to trigger deeper reflection about, sensitivity to, or understanding of the negligent practices of the fast-food industry. The ad is endeavoring to inspire a realization in consumers that they are merely collecting what is being dispensed from a machine without giving thought to the broader capitalist system controlling their food choices (Chipotle, 0:51). The scarecrow becomes a representation for the consumer who believes in sustainable agriculture. The story’s intention challenges consumers to recognize the harmful effects of industrial agricultural production and that they make more thoughtful and educated choices in selecting produce. The ad illustrates this when customers begin to leave the Crow Foods line and discover the lone scarecrow’s alternative fresh product (Chipotle, 2:58). This reveals how customers are abandoning industrial food production with the discovery of new and improved alternatives for sustainable food products.

Chipotle has created a story, which highlights concerns about mass agricultural food production and differentiates themselves from these systems. The company has constructed identities for consumers, producers and workers and provides a different mode of agricultural production to reinforce the consumer’s sense of autonomy, unity and gratification.

Chipotle’s ad resulted in an outcry of public responses within 48 hours of its release and generated controversy due to its representation of the contemporary production systems in the fast-food industry. Ultimately, there is not unanimous agreement on whether Chipotle can be a viable player in the fast-food industry, using their modes of sustainability. It caused people to question whether diversity in their production practices is possible within the fast-food industry or whether Chipotle is simply making a strategic move to position themselves and promote their unique brand, just like other large fast-food enterprises.

The parody Honest Scarecrow, which critiques Chipotle as another big corporation using advertising to manipulate people into believing that industrialized farming practices are not being used, represents the audience who disagree with the ad. Additional criticisms erupted, pointing out further inconsistencies between Chipotle’s ad and their operations. Specifically, the ad suggests Chipotle is a fully organic, local, ethical and sustainable food producer (as demonstrated by the Scarecrow’s business, by handpicking local vegetables from his garden, cooking fresh ingredients and selling burritos, minutes after preparation) (Chipotle, 2:20 – 2:50). However Chipotle’s own website states that their business still uses a range of larger industrialized, non-local and potentially non-sustainable production practices.

For those that agree, Chipotle has been able to capture the ethical concerns consumers have about food production and distinguish how their production processes deviate from industrialized agricultural production norms. The varied responses, both criticisms and support, characterize common anxieties around the production processes embedded in the fast-food industry. This controversy leads to the question of whether it is possible for an enterprise such as Chipotle to differ in the way they produce food for mass-scale consumption. I advocate Chipotle has established a small but unique space within the prepared food marketplace and it is this niche market that I believe will successfully differentiate them from others in the fast-food industry.

The Scarecrow ad creates an identity for consumers, producers and workers with the overall aim to become a symbol that opposes the harmful effects of mass-scale agricultural production. Chipotle has created a social location and identity for all three categories (consumer, producer and worker) to instill a particular sense of meaning and quality towards production processes for mass-scale consumption. The following section will further expand on the particular subjectivities Chipotle has created, which supports my thesis of how Chipotle’s position within the prepared food marketplace is challenging current subjectivities in the fast-food industry.

Since its rise in the early 1950’s, the prepared food marketplace has become embedded into the North American food system. The efforts to reshape the conventional agrifood system are what Wright and Middendorf term the ‘fight over food,’ as food production processes become increasingly associated with human consciousness. Chipotle is part of this fight over food, making changes towards a more sustainable method of food production, while competing in the fast-food industry.

Major changes are taking place in the agri-food business and Wierenga notes that consumer behavior is the driving force behind these changing dynamics. Chipotle projects a sense of transparency by disclosing food sourcing information to customers, offering information about its in-store practices and by providing a large food sourcing and production section on their website. This transparency contrasts standard fast-food chains where access to information about production (processes and products) has traditionally been made difficult to access. This opposition between Chipotle and other fast-food chains supports my argument of Chipotle as an alternative and unique player in the prepared food marketplace. For example, Chipotle’s use of metaphors in their advertisements demonstrates transparency, such as Chipotle visualizes the difference between what appears to be small on the outside (a pastoral billboard), which then opens up to be a big mechanized factory full of complexity and machinery deep within Crow Foods itself. Another example of transparency is addressed when the scarecrow peeks behind the All Natural egg billboard (non-transparent) to find a chicken being (assumingly) injected with growth hormones (Chipotle, 1:05). Chipotle demonstrates they are willing to be transparent about their food production to consumers and have been more open in the process by admitting not all their ingredients are fully sustainable yet.

Consumers can face a dehumanizing aspect within the fast-food industry where their interaction between the producer and worker are limited. Ritzer explains:

Customers are dehumanized by scripted interactions, and other efforts to make      interactions uniform…dehumanization occurs when prefabricated             interactions     take the place of authentic human relationships (p. 37).

This not only affects the consumer but also the worker as their identity becomes nonexistent through the defined scripted interaction. Dehumanization is depicted in Chipotle’s ad, when customers line up to get their food from the Crow Foods factory and have no human communication in the process (0:50). Chipotle challenges dehumanizing processes by demonstrating how their relationship between the producers, workers and consumer has meaning. The lone scarecrow depicts Chipotle’s differentiation by engaging in a different food production process, using traditional culinary skills and inviting customers to try his freshly made food. The ad creates a world where consumers are shown who the producers are (the lone scarecrow) and reintroduces human interaction within the system. Chipotle envisions a system of sustainable agriculture where there is a relationship between producers, workers and consumers.

In many circumstances, fast-food companies try to control their consumers, resulting in the feeling of powerlessness and victimization. Ritzer elaborates, stating:

McDonaldized organizations seek to control the consumer, irrespective of the consumer’s desires or needs… In the fast-food restaurant, consumers are victimized by the structure (the limited menu, the drive-through window, the uncomfortable seats) (p. 63 and 65).

In comparison, Chipotle offers the consumer more choice. Chipotle is more sensitive to these restrictions, and attempts to cater directly to customer needs by offering sustainable food with meaning and “integrity”. Chipotle offers an abundance of information, delineating a new level of transparency across fast-food companies and ultimately, Chipotle is challenging current subjectivities empowering consumers through information.

The producer’s subjectivity is highlighted throughout the ad as the lone scarecrow is haunted by mass-scale agriculture and instead chooses an autonomous small-scale form of agricultural production. By aligning themselves with the scarecrow, Chipotle informs viewers that they are producing food alternatively or differently than the majority of fast-food chains who use industrial farming to produce food for mass consumption. Small-scale farmers have been undermined and neglected within the mass-scale agricultural production system and large corporations have been controlling and taking away their business and autonomy. By supporting family farms and local production, Chipotle challenges existing system structures within the prepared food marketplace to make room for small-scale farmers. Gibson-Graham’s vision correlates with Chipotle’s activist role, as it allows for space within the economy, leads towards global heterogeneous capitalist ideals, or alternative economies, and allows for smaller scale producers to create new subjectivities. Gibson-Grahams notion of heterogeneity supports my argument that Chipotle challenges the current subjectivities within the prepared food marketplace and demonstrates their commitment to incorporate smallness (small-scale farmers to mid-size farmers) into the big capitalist system (fast-food industry).

It is crucial to note that although Chipotle is a larger company within the fast-food industry, they have been able to establish a relationship with the producer by altering the subjectivity of small-scale farmers. Chipotle continues to make a conscious effort to source food from family farms wherever possible and to integrate these small-scale products into the mass-scale production and consumption system. The company’s efforts are providing this sector of producers with more power, autonomy and opportunity to participate in the larger system.

Chipotle is a hybrid within the prepared food marketplace, incorporating both big and small production means. In the highly competitive fast-food industry, it is a challenge to produce food for mass consumption using responsible methods such as family farms. Chipotle creates a unique space for itself by focusing on socially responsible business practices instead of opting for a simpler and potentially more profitable option. Chipotle is moving towards a different production process. Their view of industrial farms is provided below:

Food produced by industrial farms may often be cheaper at the supermarket, but we believe the actual costs – in terms of environmental and community impacts – run very high. We think that makes factory farming unsustainable, and that’s why we continue looking for better ways to supply our restaurants (Chipotle Mexican Grill).

Not only is Chipotle getting naturally raised meat from family farms but also a lot of their produce is locally grown “on farms within 350 miles of the restaurant” (Chipotle Mexican Grill). Chipotle faces challenges of intense capitalization within the globalized system, which is described by Tischner:

Globalization of the food-processing industry has led to much more diversity in the food products available… Whether this leads to homogenization of food supplies across regions and nations is more disputed. Consumers have greater choice at lower prices and more convenience. However, as the production systems have become more complex and the distance between producers and consumers increases, direct control becomes more difficult… Consumers have more problems knowing where and how food is produced, and producers do not know who is buying their produce. While these tendencies have challenged transparency as well as accountability, overall it has also produced predictability (p. 12).

Chipotle tries to bridge the gap between producers and consumers and to bring more awareness into the food-processing industry. Chipotle views their communication with consumers as imperative to ensure they are meeting consumers and producers needs. Throughout their advertisement, Chipotle expresses that they want their company to embrace a production process suitable to the lone scarecrow, and one that differs from the industrial system of Crow Foods farm. Chipotle has established a more personal relationship with smaller-scale producers, which has allowed them to provide explicit information on where they source their food and the conditions the food products are raised in.

Chipotle does not want workers to fear being stripped of their dignity in an industrialized assembly line. Instead, the company offers an alternative mode of production to try and create meaning, responsibility and job satisfaction for workers. Ritzer defines that generally:

The fast-food industry offers its employees what I have recently called ‘McJobs’. Besides not using all their skills, employees are not allowed to think and be creative on the job. This leads to a high level of resentment, job dissatisfaction, alienation, absenteeism, and turnover among those who work in fast-food restaurants (p. 36).

Chipotle differs from this norm around workers’ subjectivity within the fast-food industry by offering staff independence and encouraging them to be apart of a to more traditional culinary process, utilizing a degree of their skills (Chipotle Mexican Grill). Not only does Chipotle integrate people into the food preparation process but they’re also bridging a cultural gap between their employees. Chipotle has an entire team dedicated towards “empowering, educating, and training employees to increase internal promotions, cultural sensitivity, and communication skills” (Chipotle Mexican Grill). This signifies how Chipotle emphasizes workers’ subjectivity giving them more meaning within the system.

The subjectivities that Chipotle challenges within the fast-food industry encompass factors of dehumanization, alienation and exploitation. Ritzer compares the nature of the production system of the fast-food industry to Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line, as it is known to be dehumanizing for those who work on it (p. 37). The high turnover rate reveals the “destructiveness of the assembly line” and how most people find it “highly alienating” (Ritzer, p. 37). Marx’s theory of production also correlates with the control and exploitation of workers, as the “means of production are those entities that make it possible for the proletariat to produce commodities and to be controlled and exploited as workers” (Ritzer, p. 110). Through their empowering employee projects and by involving workers in food preparation, Chipotle defines their own system of subjectivity, where workers do not feel exploited and controlled by the typical assembly-line nature of production. Examining Chipotle’s relationship with workers, one can see how the company demonstrates their uniqueness in the fast-food industry and heterogeneity within the production system. Although there is still control in terms of employment and expectations of what is served, workers have more liberty to direct input how food is served and prepared. Overall, Chipotle’s position within the prepared food marketplace challenges current subjectivities of the fast-food industry, which ultimately defines their unique space within the larger system.

The following section examines where Chipotle positions itself in terms of mass production within the prepared food marketplace. I will argue through the combination of small and big, Chipotle creates a unique space within the fast-food industry, one that could be described as a hybrid, alternative or middle ground in comparison to the McDonaldized system. Chipotle differentiates itself by taking the initiative to link consumerism to ethics.

Chipotle is ethical to a degree, and is incorporating smallness to a degree, but it operates in a big market place. It changes and challenges the standard relationship between ethical in the niche marketplace and non-ethical in mass consumer marketplaces. Chipotle operates on two levels, both small and big, as a hybrid form of food producer within the fast-food industry. In order to understand how Chipotle incorporates smallness into a big system, it is important to analyze how homogeneity and heterogeneity impact Chipotle’s position in the marketplace. Ritzer references the role of homogeneity and heterogeneity within our globalized capitalist system:

At the extremes, the globalization of culture can lead either to a trend towards common codes and practices (homogeneity) or to a situation in which many cultures interact to create a kind of pastiche or a blend leading to a variety of hybrids (heterogeneity) (p. 160).

This concept of ‘pastiche’ is a good illustration of Chipotle’s position within the prepared food marketplace towards a heterogeneous incorporation of smallness in the big system. Wright and Middendorf discuss crucial empowerment of counter hegemonic food politics and how it re-orientates economies or large corporations away from an exclusive focus on commodification and maximizing profits and towards a more sustainable provision (p. 99). Chipotle has chosen to follow this process, as they participate in the hegemonic system of mass-scale agricultural production, but do so with a sustainable provision.

This section will demonstrate how Chipotle has adopted a middle ground in comparison to the McDonaldized system. McDonaldization theory is a process by which:

The principles of the process are efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control, particularly through the substitution of nonhuman for human technology (Ritzer, p. 162).

It must be assumed that not all systems are equally McDonaldized as “McDonaldization is a matter of degree, with some settings having been more McDonaldized than others” (Ritzer, p. 163). Although Chipotle is McDonaldized to a degree, they have been able to deviate through their mode of production, which challenges current subjectivities in the fast-food industry, as well as their production processes. Chipotle incorporates smaller-scale farming into their production processes while continuing to participate in the larger fast-food industry. Schlosser discusses vertical McDonaldization in the essence that other industries in the supply chain choose to McDonaldize to reach huge scale and serve the insatiable demands of the fast-food industry. Alternatively, Ritzer explains “it is possible for systems to move in the other direction – to undergo de-McDonaldization” and I proclaim Chipotle has attempted to move in this direction (p. 58). A counter-trend Ritzer finds worthy of noting is:

The rise of McDonaldized systems that are able to produce high-quality products. The major example is the large and fast-growing chain of Starbucks coffee shops… Starbucks has shown it is possible to create a McDonaldized system that dispenses quality products; on the surface, this poses a profound challenge to McDonaldization and more generally to the McDonaldization thesis (p. 50).

A parallel can be drawn between Chipotle and Starbucks, as Chipotle is challenging certain ideas and concepts of McDonaldization as well. Chipotle is able to provide quality products but function under a similar system, as a fast-growing chain. This position of being a fast-growing chain will be further explored when analyzing Tsing’s supply chain capitalism. One of the key points recognized within this parallel between Chipotle and Starbucks is that both are trying to achieve quality while continuing to serve mass quantity within the prepared food industry. Ritzer refers to Starbucks as an “atypical chain,” as it sells variations of one simple product −coffee − and keeps the service and quality consistent. In this regard, Chipotle could also be thought of as an “atypical chain.” Chipotle has an element of homogenization, as a franchise and through product consistency. Starbucks demonstrates it is possible to:

McDonaldize quality when we are dealing with one simple product, when there are technologies that ensure high and consistent quality, and when enough patrons are willing to pay relatively large amounts of money for the product (Ritzer, p.50).

Another parallel between Starbucks and Chipotle is their products are more expensive than competitors, targeting a group of consumers who are willing to pay more for the quality and consistency the particular brand offers. Overall, this parallel reinforces the idea that Chipotle can be understood as an alternative or, as Ritzer defined, an “atypical chain”, within the Mcdonaldized system.

A parallel can also be made between fast-food chains and Fordism, by analyzing the shift of consumer demand. Ritzer states:

The only thing that stands in the way of a chain of restaurants that offers a range of high-quality niches is the likelihood that there is an insufficient demand for such a product (p. 52).

This may be true for some restaurants, however, Chipotle has been able to target a certain niche or market of people who are willing to pay more for quality. Ritzer supports this notion by stating that “McDonaldization, like Fordism, is changing and we will see more systems that are capable of combining quantity and quality” and Chipotle has accomplished both (p. 52). The combination of quality and quantity, which traditionally operate as mutually exclusive binaries, further exemplifies how Chipotle has been able to occupy a hybrid space in the prepared food marketplace.

J.K. Gibson-Graham’s vision of an alternative, flexible and empowering economy, that all society can function within, correlates with Chipotle’s position in the prepared food marketplace. Gibson-Graham’s position throughout their book, Postcapitalist Politics, focuses on the construction of capitalism and argues the possibility of an alternative economy that includes ‘diversity’ and ‘plurality’ within our capitalist economy. Gibson-Graham’s notion of “new economic becomings” is possible through creating space in the economy, as its aim is to “disarm and dislocate the naturalized hegemony of the capitalist economy” (p. 60). Gibson-Graham’s uniformly flexible and diverse economy demonstrates how Chipotle is able to exist within the fast-food industry as an alternative entity.

Capitalism is full of possibilities for alternative markets and the proliferation of new becomings within the economy. Chipotle highlights this theory as an example of how an alternative economy is necessary for mid-size farmers to continue working in a counter hegemonic capitalist market in order to promote their transactions and labour. Centralization, mass production and the intense capitalization of agriculture can vary depending on factors such as the current market economy, globalization, competitors within a market, state control, level of self-sufficiency, subjectivity and levels of production and consumption. This alternative market functions within the whole economy and enables new subjectivity and autonomy for people of the alternative economy.

Supply chain performances can be effective in certain niches as they can create alternatives. Chipotle would fall under niche-based capitalism as they “ply the edge of economic sustainability and thus negotiate, too, the edge of legitimacy” (p. 38). Tsing notes “supply-chain capitalism focuses our attention on questions of diversity within structures of power” (p. 1). Tsing refers to Gibson-Graham’s notion of “creative alternatives emerging from within the interstices between capitalist and non-capitalist spaces” (p. 38). The interstice between capitalist and non-capitalist spaces supports Chipotle being able to encompass a creative alternative within the capitalist system by including mid-size farmers into their supply chain who can be deemed a radicalized land-based actor. Lyson et al. depict how the commercial interests of large companies are geared towards the development of supply chains, biological manufacturing, and the reduction of transaction costs, which can negatively affect local farms. Although the majority of large corporations continue to prosper by following these interests, Chipotle has been able to differentiate by accommodating the interests of mid-size farmers and ranchers. For example, Chipotle sources pork from the Niman Ranch Pork Company, a family farm that “helps to create a marketplace for diversified farmers who want to raise livestock in a healthy, humane way” (Chipotle Mexican Grill).

Chipotle is trying to build a relationship between producers and consumers based on accountability and assurance of where their food comes from. Lyson et al. state “producers must reach out and understand their consumers,” which is what Chipotle has done (p. 114). Chipotle makes an effort to build mutuality between ‘agriculture of the middle’ and consumer interests. Lyson et al. support the notion of linking consumers wants with agribusiness by reinforcing the need for a new food system approach that reevaluates the linkages between corporations and farms of the middle.

In mixing big and small production means, Chipotle creates a unique model within the larger capitalist system. This can be described as ‘alternative’ by Gibson-Graham, ‘supply-chain capitalism’ by Tsing, ‘middle ground,’ and an “atypical chain” by Lyson et al., and “de-McDonaldization” by Ritzer. Chipotle defines a distinctive space in the prepared food marketplace, one that I’ve described as a hybrid alternative to the McDonaldized system. Within our globalized capitalist economy, Chipotle has been able to adopt a unique space within the prepared food marketplace, one that challenges the proliferation of industrial farming and the marginalization of small-scale farming.

Having identified Chipotle’s position, the next step is to evaluate the effectiveness of their sustainable production practices. One must question the veracity Chipotle depicts in The Scarecrow ad and determine whether they embody what they’ve proclaimed in the ad. By analyzing various sources of expertise, the following section will demonstrate how Chipotle’s advertising campaign creates a reality that does not yet exist.

American farmers and ranchers, both industrial and family farmers, were offended by Chipotle’s depiction of industrial farming and its claim to be an ethical agribusiness. Farmers have expressed that Chipotle’s million dollar marketing scheme undermines their profession because it tells consumers that American farming practices are corrupt and Chipotle’s production methods are local, ethical and sustainable. Farmers argue:

Chipotle’s marketing campaigns rely on stirring up emotion with imagery that paints a bleak picture of a futuristic food system that is factory-like and systemic problems with nefarious and imagined solutions. Chipotle wants to stand out from other fast food chains by convincing their customers that eating at Chipotle will help fight the good fight against the ‘bad guys’. With everything from scarecrows to serenades by Willie Nelson, Chipotle captures the attention, and emotions, of their audiences with plenty of fear and misinformation (Goodman).

Goodman questions Chipotle’s exorbitant spending on marketing misinformation instead of telling people where their food actually comes from.

Other farmers such as David Hayden, a meat scientist, note Chipotle claims farmers have no integrity. Hayden asserts that he has been in several factories where Chipotle’s meat is produced and asserts the “honest factor is missing” in The Scarecrow ad (Farming America). For example, Hayden proclaims the scene with the chicken being presumably injected with growth hormones (The Scarecrow, 1:08) is a completely false depiction of reality as “hormones are illegal” and “not used in poultry production” (Farming America). The Peterson brothers, family farmers from Kansas who specialize in beef cattle, also declare that Chipotle misleads consumers and demonizes the image of family farmers. Greg Peterson, one of the brothers, describes the ad as a “skewed portrayal” and believes “they are the huge industry greedily trying to make a profit” (Peterson Farm Blog).

Diana Prichard reminds us that Americans have never been more disconnected from animals, farms and farmers and this is the reason for food politics today (Prichard). Chipotle uses America’s disconnect from farms to their advantage, as they address such an audience on food politics, which Prichard coins as “ethics washing.” Chipotle does not offer any solutions to certain problems in the fast-food industry and instead portrays their production practices as ethical, sustainable and even utopian for a fast-food company.

Elizabeth Weiss converses with Chipotle’s Communications Director Chris Arnold, who concurs that Chipotle is not perfect and instead is committed to “constant improvement.” Arnold admits to working in a “grey area,” as terms such as “naturally raised,” “humane” and “organic” can hold various meanings and that Chipotle is, to some degree, defining their own standards for their customers. Arnold confirmed Chipotle’s supply cannot meet the demand, rendering only partial meat production that can adhere to the standards of ‘no use of antibiotics or growth hormones’ and ‘raised in a conventional operation.’ Weiss proclaims Chipotle has fallen short of the ad’s ideals and Chipotle “gets credit for our veggie-related good feelings without having to depict what alternatives to factory-farmed meat actually look like” (Weiss).

Mark Crumpacker, Chipotle’s Chief Marketing Officer comments on The Scarecrow ad:

The film is really what I would describe as aspirational. It’s a view of a potential future that we would rather like to avoid as opposed to a literal representation of Chipotle’s exact practices (DesMarain).

Additionally, Crumpacker states:

Chipotle is far from perfect. We still have a long way to go when it comes to improving our own ingredients. Chipotle is a large company and in many ways takes part in the same industrial food system we aim to change. (Huffington Post).

This claim demonstrates how Chipotle does not embody what it portrays in The Scarecrow ad but on the contrary, grabs the consumer’s attention in a manipulative manner. Chipotle has told a story that undermines farmers and misleads consumers; it has gained profits by telling lies (Lukovitz). Chipotle has constructed a false reality to convince consumers its practices are sustainable and an alternative in the fast-food industry but Chipotle has not lived up to its professed standards.

Michael Pollan’s book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, scrutinizes food politics today and discusses problems of the fast-food industry, the organic industry, industrial farming and how our food system largely depends on supply and demand. Pollan unveils an uncomfortable truth about industrial agriculture that frames Chipotle in a new light. Pollan reveals how the word “organic” has been used as a marketing tool to increase market prices, represent better sustainable practices and to mask the truth behind production practices. Pollan highlights how “organic” has become one of the most powerful words in the supermarket but discredits its overall use by stating:

The organic label itself — is really just an imperfect substitute for direct observation of how a food is produced, a concession to the reality that most people in an industrial society haven’t the time or the inclination to follow their food back to the farm… So to bridge that space we rely on certifiers and label writers and, to a considerable extent, our imagination of what the farms that are producing our food really look like. The organic label may conjure an image of a simpler agriculture, but its very existence is an industrial artifact (Pollan, p. 137).

Pollan’s argument can be applied to Chipotle, as they use labels and marketing campaigns to depict a (false) image instead of showing consumers where they source their meat and the farming practices they use. Pollan explains that Chipotle paints a similar picture to Whole Foods by using the term ‘organic’ to perpetuate an “authentic experience” for shoppers, by creating the feeling that they are “returning to a utopian past with the positive aspects of modernity intact” (p. 137). Whole Foods uses similar techniques to Chipotle’s, using “organic” labels, posters of family farms and stories of “Rosie the chicken” to market a particular representation to consumers. However, Pollan reveals that Whole Foods receives their products from big corporations that dominate the organic marketplace in America and that their organic food processes are not all that sustainable (p. 151). Furthermore, the term [organic] falls within in a grey area, as it is not strictly defined in America and according to Pollan, has been “stretched and twisted to admit the very sort of industrial practices for which it once offered a critique and an alternative” (p. 157). This exacerbates the issue around industrial agriculture because the term [organic] is being used as a safety net for consumers and as a marketing tool to increase profit.

Instead of defining its position in the prepared food marketplace, they are immersing themselves in the complexity of the global food crisis and consumer anxiety around food production. Chipotle adds to the confusion about food production by making false claims and using emotional marketing campaigns to their advantage. Chipotle has skewed their honest portrayal to advance through capitalization, and not because of ethics or sustainability. Chipotle used the ad to amplify the issues around food politics, by manipulating consumers and using the food crisis to stir emotions. If Chipotle was truly embodying the representation depicted in The Scarecrow ad, then it would be considered a move towards sustainability, however they continue to source some of their products from industrial factories. Although Chipotle has made significant changes, such as sourcing some products from mid-size farms, their products are not consistently sourced; therefore it should be noted that Chipotle has made only a partial change for sustainability.

Chipotle is situated at the core of the capitalist market, participating in a system based on efficiency and using false claims to enhance its image and profits. Chipotle presents the illusion they are using local, family farms and that they are against industrial farming, however as stated above, they continue to source some of their meat products from big corporate farms (as well as mid-size farms for some locations). Pollan reinforces this by referencing Nation who writes:

The biggest problem with alternative agriculture today, is that it seeks to incorporate bits and pieces of the industrial model and bits and pieces of the artisanal model (p. 250).

This is why Chipotle has created such an outcry. They proclaim they are trying to make a change towards more ethical practices and yet the company’s directors have admitted this is not true. If Chipotle truly wants to set themselves apart from other fast-food chains and make a positive change, they will need to go beyond just marketing themselves as an alternative.

Capitalism and the industrial revolution have influenced the food crisis, and fast-food companies feed this crisis by continuing to use technology, social fragmentation and standardization in order to maximize efficiency. The real danger is that consumers are being fooled into believing that they’re eating organic, sustainably produced food. Furthermore, the contentious issue is that Chipotle has aptly positioned itself within the global food marketplace, using ingenious material tools to claim sustainability, regardless of the purity of their production practices. Chipotle continues to embrace an image of improvement and perhaps will never reach the 100% sustainability mark but Chipotle is superior to the competition. I suspect Chipotle will continue to partake in the ‘grey area’ despite continuously being questioned about the ethics behind their sustainable claims, and that their ability to be a fully sustainable organization will never reach perfection. While it is tempting to buy into the Funny Or Die parody which suggests that Chipotle is just another clever ad campaign selling the same fast-food products, I would concur with the idea that Chipotle has improved the world of fast-food, and give the company credit for making changes toward sustainability. However, I argue Chipotle does these things only partially. Chipotle has defined their space as a niche, unlike other fast-food companies, and Mark Crumpacker reinforces the ad’s meaning by stating:

The whole thing is a metaphor for a system that we think to a large degree is in crisis…. Chipotle is a different alternative to the way food is produced at a very large scale than the majority of our competitors (DesMarais).

I believe this is all part of Chipotle’s strategy for success and that the strategy will result in an ongoing ‘success story’ for their company. Participating in a grey area, using marketing campaigns to green wash and stir customer emotions and to continue only partially producing sustainable products. The ad’s unique marketing schemes have been clever in persuading and appealing to people’s emotions. While Chipotle has made some positive changes within their marketing portrayals, such as their “Food With Integrity” program, they are still engaging in a world of both pure imagination and manipulation. Chipotle have effectively embedded themselves into the complex food crisis that surrounds us and have undoubtedly positioned themselves as an alternative within the fast-food marketplace. Chipotle’s position within the prepared food marketplace has challenged current subjectivities in the fast-food industry. This alternative position has allowed Chipotle to participate in a grey area where they can obtain products from both industrial farms and mid-size farms, while conveying to consumers that they value “Food With Integrity” and sustainability. Their claims represent positive change and a commitment to ongoing improvement, but until they can establish an independent market from fast-food, Chipotle will continue to reside in a world of imagination and manipulation – unable to become a fully credible player in the local, ethical, organic and sustainable fast-food marketplace.


Works Cited

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Crumpacker, Mark. “It’s Time For A New Conversation About Food.” The Huffington Post., 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 24 June 2014.

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